Wake Up Call: A reflection on Romans 13.8-14

I go for walks or runs every morning, and I’m blessed that my routes take me through a beautiful ravine system that snakes its way through my part of the city. One of the great things about this daily practice is that it helps me to notice the subtle changes in this little ecosystem as the year passes. Over the past week or two, it’s become clear that Summer is slowly starting to wind down. The morning light is changing from glaring white to softer peach, the drone of the cicadas has thinned, the rustle of the leaves is getting louder, fruit is ripening, nuts are falling, and the grasses and grains are turning from green to gold. It’s a beautiful, rich time of year that brings to mind James Agee’s words: “High Summer holds the earth / Hearts all whole.”

It’s a season when all the promise of the year is coming to fulfillment. The harvest is at hand, a kind of judgment, or moment of truth, for the year’s labours. This is simultaneously exciting and sad, as the year’s fertile season draws to a close. It’s time for one last push to ensure we are ready for Winter.

This sense of time passing and nearing its fulfillment also pervades today’s Epistle reading, which is the second half of Romans 13. In it, Paul writes, “The hour has already come for you to wake up from your slumber, because our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed. The night is nearly over; the day is almost here” (13.11f).

Time is running out; the time to act is now.

According to Paul, the Romans Christians have been asleep on the job. Like the Foolish Virgins of Jesus’ parable, whose lack of preparation left them shut out from the wedding banquet, Paul warns them they are unprepared for Jesus’ coming. They belong to a new way of being in the world, and yet they continue to play by the rules of the old way, with its divisions of class, gender, and culture. They have failed to love their neighbours; they have failed to bless their persecutors. Paul urges them to wake up and get going.

Time is running out; the time to act is now.

Paul expands on this analogy of night and day. The daylight isn’t just the time to be alert and ready, but it also exposes all that the darkness has hidden:

Let us live beautifully as befits the daytime: not acting like life is about your wild parties, drunken adventures, sexual escapades, or acting like you’re above the laws of physics, God, and the land. It’s not about your petty quarrels and passions either. Instead of fantasizing about revenge or your next great party, binge, or fuck, wrap yourselves up in the Lord Jesus Christ, like an armour of light (paraphrase of vv.12f).

Or to summarize, “Nothing that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.”

The problem with these things isn’t ‘pleasure’ but that they involve a loss of control, poor decision-making, and a consequent breaking of faith. As such, they represent the opposite of Paul’s vision of a Christian community grounded in love and good faith. And, we can’t play both sides of that game forever.

Time is running out; the time to act is now.

All through Romans, Paul has been making his case: It’s not about Jew and Gentile anymore. It’s not about finding a King or High Priest or Prophet to make everything right. It’s not about climbing the social ladder. Both the way of Revolution and of the Pax Romana are dead ends. That old way of being in the world, with its Principalities and Powers, is over.

In its place, we are being offered a new way of being in the world, a way of God’s gracious justice and love, from faith to faith. It’s a better way to be sure, but challenging. It demands that we make decisions to show up for our neighbours, for ‘the least of these,’ and even for our enemies, in big and small ways alike. And Paul urges the Christians in Rome to step into this new life, right now, like there’s no time to waste.

Two thousand years later, that call is as relevant as ever. Never in my lifetime has it been more apparent and urgent than it is today. In these apocalyptic days, much that has been going on in secret is being exposed. We as a society and as individual persons within it are facing our own kind of judgment day. The discrepancy between who we’ve said we are and who we have really been is now in the light for all to see. The genie is out of the bottle; there’s no going back to the convenient lies and half-truths of the past. And we have to ask ourselves who is it that we want to be. If we take our Christian faith seriously, we have to ask ourselves hard questions: How we can show up for our neighbours in a pandemic? How we can show up for “the outcasts and sinners,” “for the least of these,” in a season of social and political unrest.

Because, as Paul reminds us today, time is running out; the time to act is now.

This is our wake up call.

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